Perseverance:The CJ Sensation Story

“Alcohol and cocaine were my crutches.” -Craig Stephenson

Craig Stephenson has been through the peaks and valleys of life. Up until four years ago, he found himself through the literal highs and lows of addiction. DUI arrests, the need to cope with the passing of his parents within just months of one another, and the dependence on substances to get through each day were burdens that he carried with him for several years. One of his DUI arrests had his blood alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit. The next time he was arrested for DUI, his blood alcohol level was nearly to the point where he would’ve been considered legally dead.

“There were many nights where when I went to bed I would have been completely fine had I not woke up the next morning,” Craig remarked.

On the flip side, through those years of personal turbulence, CJ Sensation, the alter ego of Craig when he laced up a pair of wrestling boots, found solace in the form of the squared circle. When he was inside the ring ropes, the natural adrenaline rush was all that he needed to enjoy life. He stood in the same ring as names like AJ Styles, Low Ki, Christian Cage, and many other national names.

For Craig, his love for professional wrestling, which he watched with his grandparents when he was a child, provided him with a welcomed distraction from any of the troubles of the outside world, and ironically, the mayhem inside the ring allowed for a level of stability from the harsh reality of life outside of it.

“I always loved the larger-than-life characters and the pure enjoyment I felt watching my favorites win,” he commented.

CJ was so passionate about the spectacle of the grappling arts that he wanted to pursue his own path in the sport as soon as he possibly could, signing up for training to become a pro at the now-defunct NWA East training academy when he was still in high school. In 1997, when his peers were at soccer practice or solving equations during a meeting of the math club, CJ spent his time after school learning how to land properly on a dirt-stained canvas in a dingy building. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have mat burns on his elbows when he finished his biology homework later that night.

“Training for me was grueling, but I’ve always considered myself pretty athletic so I’d like to think I caught on to it fairly quickly, besides the psychology part of it, which for most comes with time and repetition. I always encourage people who want to live out their dream do it, but the disclaimer is that this isn’t ballet or for the faint of heart,” CJ explained.

In fact, Craig was so young when he started to learn the ropes that he was actually a referee when needed because of the guidelines of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission didn’t allow him to compete when he was that young. Again, still in high school, but completed with his training, Stephenson jumped at the chance to be in the ring as an official, an experience that he credits to his early development as an in-ring performer.

“I would actually say being a referee helped me become a better wrestler, with ring positioning and being able to connect with the crowd more to try and bring out that emotion,” he explained.

Craig made his pro debut in 1999 and began on the circuit around the tri-state area, working for an alphabet soup collection of organizations to get the valuable in-ring experience to progress his career. In those early years, some of his most cherished highlights took place in his home promotion, the International Wrestling Cartel, one of the longest-running and most well-known independent groups in western Pennsylvania. Ran successfully for many years by Norm Connors, regarded by many as the godfather of the Pittsburgh independent scene, IWC hosts the Super Indy tournament each year, a tradition carried on today by current owner, Justin Plummer. The Super Indy tournament is considered one of the most storied events of the Pittsburgh circuit and a staple of the calendar in the area. CJ Sensation was one of the participates in the very first Super Indy event when he competed against Low Ki in 2001. CJ also cited his chance to wrestle a bout against CM Punk around that same time as one of the most rewarding moments of his in-ring career.

During an era when WCW’s cruiser weight division garnered rave reviews and then TNA’s X-Division got fans to take notice, CJ Sensation was considered one of the high flyers to watch on the Pittsburgh scene. CJ zigzagged around the tri-state area, sometimes for big crowds, and sometimes for sparsely-attended cards for different organizations to pursue the goal that he set for himself when he was a youngster.

However, in 2003, not only the momentum that he built with a reputation as a top prospect in his career, but Craig Stephenson’s life came to a grinding halt. During a triple threat match, a mistimed Styles Clash maneuver planted CJ on his head, breaking his neck. He was partially paralyzed for a few hours and wondered if he would ever live a normal life again. Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian hospital performed a C6 and C7 fusion surgery to repair the damage. Stephenson made a full recovery, but it look several months and ultimately altered the trajectory of his pro wrestling career. Today, he has a six-inch scar on the back of his neck as a reminder of the injury scare.

“It affected my career because for a period of time, I was unable to do something that I was very passionate about and that I loved. I became very depressed, but thankfully I was able to get back to it. My goal remained the same as I was trained to no matter how long I’m involved in this great business that whenever my time comes to an end to make sure I leave this business better than I came into it,” Craig commented.

Acknowledging how disastrous the consequences of the injury could’ve been, CJ transitioned back to where he started, as a referee. With the prior experience of counting pin falls and his time as an in-ring performer, he was a natural fit for the official of major Pittsburgh bouts. He dabbled with short stints as a wrestler again over the years, but kept those comebacks to limited special occasions or specific storylines to reduce any further risks to his neck.

“My favorite highlights as a referee are a match between AJ Styles and Christian Cage at an IWC Show, which if I’m not mistaken, is one of the biggest attendance records in the 23-year history of IWC. We have such great talent, and hope we top that in the years to come. Secondly, my dive off the top of the cage during a IWC Caged Fury War Games style match. I am so grateful to be able to be in the ring and learn from some of the greatest men and women to ever lace up a pair of boots,” CJ said.

Amid the years of professional fulfillment was the personal turbulence bubbling underneath the surface. Craig cited 2017 as a year where he completely spiraled out of control. Lines of cocaine and empty liquor bottles defined his existence at the time. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that shut the world down that Craig had the chance to reflect on the path he was on, and if he would have a future. In an undeniable show of courage, Craig checked himself into the Pocono Mountain Recovery Center, where he spent 33 days at an inpatient program to address his struggles with addiction. August 12th of this year will mark four years clean for him.

“It was the best decision I’ve made in my life. The reason I decided to overcome those hurdles is pretty simple now that I’m able to look back on it with a clear mind. If I didn’t make the necessary changes I did, I can 100% promise you that I would either be dead or in jail. So many people saw so much in me that until I got clean, I didn’t see in myself. It’s my goal day in and day out to be 1% better than I was the day before and live a life that I never thought Imaginable,” Craig explained.

Today, CJ Sensation is known as one of the top referees in Pittsburgh, working with almost every major independent organization in the area. Groups like IWC, RWA, and 2PW know the value that a stellar referee brings to that table, and CJ is considered a major asset to each organization.

“CJ Sensation was one of the first people I met in this business. He has gotten me through some of the toughest times in my life, and just times in this business when I wanted to hang up the headphones. CJ is not only a loved friend and a brother,I considered him back then and now a mentor. He has helped me so much with commentary, delivery, and other wrestling knowledge, I would’ve been lost without him,” said Doc Daugherty, lead play-by-play commentator for the Renegade Wrestling Alliance.

More recently, despite the accomplishments in getting clean, Craig learned that he suffered from Chiari Malformation Type 1, a brain disease that he plans to undergo surgery for this month. Still, CJ is excited for the future, as he enrolled in online classes to pursue a Psychology degree from Carlow University this fall. Along with that, Craig uses his experiences to help others that have struggled with addiction.

“I work a full-time job as a Certified Recovery Specialist and share my experience, strength, and hope with those that may still struggle and seek a life of recovery,” he explained.

Craig also enlisted the help of fellow pro wrestler, Elijah Dean, a personal trainer, to continue to be as healthy as possible as he recovers from the upcoming surgery to address the Chiari Malformation Type 1 disease. It’s not uncommon to see pictures of CJ in the gym early in the morning on social media, which is much different than where he was several years ago.

“Besides refereeing, I’ve been blessed to be able to get more into the production side of things, as well as helping produce or agent a lot of the matches that you see for various different indy promotions in the western PA area. With me getting older, I still feel that I can add a lot of value to any product using my brain and not deteriorating my body more than I already have. I have a lot of big life goals,” CJ remarked.

Craig Stephenson broke his neck in a wrestling ring in 2003, but he endured. Craig hit rocky bottom in 2017, but he endured to get clean. In 2024, CJ will undergo surgery for a brain disease, but the odds are that he will endure that to be the healthiest that he has been in his entire life so that he can continue to contribute to his passion for the sport of professional wrestling.

For more information about CJ, you can go to

What do you think? Share your thoughts, opinions, feedback, and anything else that was raised on Twitter @PWMania and

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail [email protected] | You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, & Threads @jimlamotta89